September 19, 2022 // Nick Messmer
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The Goals of Vocabulary Learning
Now that we have a better understanding of the goal of vocabulary learning, let's talk about how we can do it most effectively and efficiently. Here are 6 key ingredients for effective vocabulary learning!
Ingredient #1: Spaced Repetition
This is contrasted with massed repetition, which involves repeating the word over and over in one session. In other words, it's much more effective to study a word once per day over 10 days than it is to repeat the word 10 times in a row. There is some debate over whether the intervals should be evenly spaced or whether your intervals should get increasingly longer, but research has tended to favor gradually increased intervals.
Ingredient #2: Retrieval Practice
By contrast, retrieval practice would involve looking at the Greek word, and trying to remember the English gloss - or vice versa. Retrieval practice has been shown to be more effective than restudy for transferring knowledge from short-term to long-term memory. But that doesn't mean restudy can't be useful. Restudy is often early on in learning a new word, before you know it well enough to practice retrieving it. But as you continue your repetitions, you should try to practice retrieval more and more.
Ingredient #3: Varied Repetition
As discussed earlier, words have a range of meaning, and that range can often be divided up into meaningfully distinct senses. Seeing a word used according to its various senses will both broaden your knowledge of the word and strengthen your retention of the word.
Varied contexts may refer to syntactic contexts or discourse contexts. In other words, seeing the word used in connection with other words as well as in relation to different topics and genres will make the word more memorable.
By contrast, verbatim repetition means repeating a word over and over with the same form, meaning, and context. This is what you typically get with flashcards and other exercises where you study a word in isolation. Like restudy, verbatim repetition can be helpful, especially for brand new words, but you want to try to move toward varied repetition as much as you can.
Ingredient #4: Elaboration
A great way to do this is using language in the context of genuine communication. Connecting a word to actions, to something being described, or to a real-life situation, especially in a context where you are trying to understand someone or to be understood, creates a more memorable experience with the word. Another great means of elaboration is using images or other visuals to represent a word. Other activities include semantic mapping, where you make connections between words with similar or related meanings, or word part analysis, where you break a word down into its various parts, and try to understand how each part contributes to the meaning of the word.
Some of these activities can take quite a long time, so it's important to keep in mind that you don't need to do them with every word. For easy words, you may be able to learn them well with simple verbatim repetition. But the more difficult the word, the more important it is to incorporate elaboration.
Ingredient #5: Production Practice
Using vocabulary in the context of production requires deeper processing than in the context of reception. It's important to note, though, that genuine production involves retrieval. In other words, it only counts as production if you're actually recalling the word from memory in order to use it to produce a message. Writing and speaking don't count as production if you're merely copying or repeating something. Copying or repeating can be helpful exercises, but they don't count as productive use.
Production practice has been shown to improve not only productive skills, but also receptive skills. So practicing speaking and writing with vocabulary you're learning will actually improve your ability to read and comprehend the words.
Ingredient #6: Motivation
There are all sorts of ways to sustain motivation through months and years of building your vocabulary. Join a community of other learners for encouragement and accountability. Incorporate vocabulary practice into your day-to-day life. Find fun and enjoyable ways to learn vocabulary, such as reading stories, having conversations, or acting things out. Set achievable goals and track your progress.
One of the most effective ways you can sustain motivation is actually by following the other 5 ingredients we've discussed here. Not only do these ingredients make learning more enjoyable by incorporating variety and stretching your abilities, but they're also effective - and nothing is more motivating than feeling like you're actually learning.
Incorporating the Key Ingredients
Sure, there are plenty of textbooks and courses available. But these typically don't give you large volumes of input with a controlled vocabulary specifically at your proficiency level. Nor do they give you the opportunity to practice output while receiving feedback and corrections. In other words, when it comes to vocabulary practice, you typically get restudy rather than retrieval practice, verbatim rather than varied repetition, minimal elaboration, and receptive rather than production practice. And textbooks don't tend to be very motivating.
Biblingo incorporates all 6 key ingredients for effective vocabulary learning: spaced repetition with auto-generated review decks, retrieval practice with flashcard and reading exercises, varied repetition with practice sentences and short stories, elaboration with visuals and semantic domains, and production practice with typing and speaking exercises. And all of this is designed to keep you motivated, along with custom learning plans to set goals, a dashboard to track your progress, and a community of learners to encourage you.
These "key ingredients" are inspired by Paul Nation's work on vocabulary acquisition. Paul Nation is a world-renowned scholar of applied linguistics who specializes in the teaching and learning of vocabulary and language teaching methodology.
You can find a bibliography of his publications, many of which are available online for free, here: Paul Nation's publications
You can find a specific article where Nation discusses many of these key ingredients at length here: "How vocabulary is learned"
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